Isis video: Publishing these images would not just be shocking, but a breach of moral responsibility

How Isis’s atrocities pose a dilemma for Western media

Andreas Whittam Smith
Wednesday 04 February 2015 17:54 GMT
An Isis jihadist pictured standing on the rubble of houses after a Syrian warplane was reportedly shot down by Isis militants over the Syrian town of Raqa
An Isis jihadist pictured standing on the rubble of houses after a Syrian warplane was reportedly shot down by Isis militants over the Syrian town of Raqa (AFP/Getty )

A consensus has formed among broadcasters and newspapers that little if any detail of the brutal execution videos posted by so-called Islamic State should be published. Mainstream media have not shown any images of the Jordanian pilot being literally burned alive, though some have run photographs of the gruesome preparations, including the lighting of the fuse and the flame streaking towards the cage containing the prisoner.

One reason put forward for this self-censorship is that some of the images are literally too horrific to display. I have some experience of the degree to which this is so. In November 1986 five weeks after The Independent was launched, the chief executive of Renault, Georges Besse, was assassinated outside his home in Paris. We had a photograph of the corpse lying on the ground with blood spilling on to the pavement. I decided to publish it prominently on the front page because I wanted readers to see the true face of the ‘Maoist’ urban guerrillas who were operating in France, Italy and West Germany at the time.

I was wrong. Readers were upset and annoyed to find this image on the front page of their newspaper. I received many critical messages. I was asked to remember that children might see the pictures. Please don’t do that again was the message.

To remind myself of this event that took place nearly 30 years ago, I turned to the contemporary accounts of the killing. The magazine ‘L’Express’ gave this brief yet succinct report: “Lost in his thoughts, Georges Besse arrived at his usual time outside the block of flats where he lived. A young woman approached. She stared at him briefly. Without a word she opened fire and then, when he was slumped on the ground, lent over him and, to make sure he was dead, fired again. Followed by her accomplice, she fled into the metro.” Yes, undoubtedly words do the job very well.

That some images can be too horrific to show is also an issue in the classification of films. I was President of the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) for five years stretching into the early 2000s. Relevant here are the guidelines for films classified as “18”. The basic rule is that adults should be free to see what they want to see in the cinema - but with some exceptions.

Now the sadistic killing of the Jordanian pilot was fact not fiction. Nonetheless the current BBFC guidelines are of interest. Parts of them are indeed relevant to broadcasters and news organisations. They state that exceptions are most likely where “material or treatment appears to us to risk harm to individuals or, through their behaviour, to society”. This takes us into the second reason for treading carefully - that we may be causing harm to society, as the BBFC would put it, by broadcasting Islamic State videos or by publishing them online or by taking stills from them. They are propaganda and propaganda will do its job.

What the BBFC has in mind of course is a very different situation from the Islamic State videos. But the BBFC’s list of what it considers harmful to disseminate include the “detailed portrayal of violent or dangerous acts, or portrayals of sadistic violence which make this violence look appealing…or which invite viewer complicity in … harmful violent activities”. This is a useful analysis of how harm to society may arise.

So might the videos of sadistic violence distributed by Islamic State appeal to some viewers in Britain or invite their complicity? The answer is almost certainly that they would do so. After all, it is estimated that as many as 2,000 Britons are fighting alongside Islamist militants in Syria and Iraq. This is the assessment of Khalid Mahmood, the Labour MP for Birmingham Perry Barr, a constituency with a significant number of Muslims.

Or we can look across the Channel to France. When the nation was invited to commemorate the victims of killing of 12 people, including two policemen, at the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the French education ministry said it had recorded “roughly 200 incidents” in schools during the minute’s silence held in public buildings on 8 January.

Education minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, who is herself Muslim, invited teachers to “respond to students’ needs” by discussing what had happened and debating whether their class wanted to observe a minute’s non-obligatory silence. One newspaper recounted that at a primary school in Seine-Saint-Denis near Paris, more than 80 per cent of pupils refused to comply, some pupils saying that Charlie Hebdo’s staff “deserved what they got”. Likewise I think we can be sure that a very small number of British viewers of the Islamic State video would believe that the Jordanian pilot “deserved” what he got.

So what is the correct policy for the media? I would say this: publish as much as possible yet stop just short of offending the reader or viewer as I once did. Remember that the judgement turns on more than natural repugnance at horrible images - the test is whether they would they encourage violent behaviour. Think, too, that much will depend on the setting in which the images are published. The possible ill consequences of publication would be multiplied many times by seeming to blame all Muslims or their religion. So tiptoe to the very edge of what is acceptable.

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